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Coverage of California Fires

Aired October 28, 2007 - 10:00   ET


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We did what we could.

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): In the line of fire. Journalists invade southern California as uncontrolled blazes force mass evacuations.

How do you cover such a massive disaster? Are news organizations being insensitive toward those who have lost their homes? Are the media politicizing the wildfires by linking them to global warming, the Iraq war or the botched response to Hurricane Katrina?

We'll ask CBS's Harry Smith, ABC's Claire Shipman, CNN's Kyra Phillips, and San Diego reporter Larry Himmel, who reported live on television as his house burned to the ground.

The pundits have a new crush. No, not him, but will it help Mike Huckabee?

Plus, the wives of the presidential candidates say they're being caricatured by the media. Do they have a point?


KURTZ: We do our share of kicking the media around on this program, so let me be clear -- when those wildfires starts raging across California, from Malibu to San Diego, journalists did what they do best. They raced into action to cover a natural disaster of tragic proportions. Not since Hurricane Katrina have the media mobilized on this large a scale, and the network anchors led the invasion.


CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: Good evening. We are flying now over San Diego County, where the worst of these fires have been bedeviling firefighters through the day.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: As to the heat of the fire that came through here, this was the wheel cover on a Mazda Miata made of an alloy. It completely melted to a liquid, and when it cooled, reconstituted to a metal.

KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: And officials now fear by the time this is over, more than 2,000 homes will have been destroyed.


KURTZ: Within days with the blazes still devouring thousands of acres, the finger-pointing stories would begin, the political arguments reverberating across the airwaves.

We'll get to that, but first, a look at how news organizations covered the fires and dealt with people losing their homes.

Joining us now are three journalists who grappled with the fast- moving story in California this week. In San Diego, "CNN NEWSROOM" anchor Kyra Phillips. In New York, Harry Smith, co-host of "The Early Show" on CBS. And here in Washington, Claire Shipman, senior national correspondent for ABC's "Good Morning America".

Harry Smith, you get there, hundreds of people are losing their homes, thousands more homes are threatened. Firefighters are working 48-hour shifts. How do you convey the magnitude of the tragedy?

HARRY SMITH, "THE EARLY SHOW": I think a lot of the idea is that you have to go there, you have to go to the story. When, as you suggest, you spend the money, you take the initiative to actually go to the story and devote the air time, that's when you can actually tell the magnitude of the story as big as this one.

KURTZ: Claire Shipman, you're out there. People's houses are here one minute, gone the next. It's a gut-wrenching story to cover. Is it not?

CLAIRE SHIPMAN, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA": It is a gut-wrenching story. And it's -- I mean, what we try to do, especially on "Good Morning America," is look at some of the smaller details, to really explain to people who aren't there what's happening.

For example, the burning embers. I mean, I started in Malibu, and, you know, standing in front of one home that was charred to the ground, others that were untouched, with the embers literally still flying around and wildfires springing up as we're on the air.

KURTZ: That contrast was amazing. We saw that again and again.

Kyra Phillips, you grew up in San Diego. You checked on your mom and dad and some of your friends.

How do you keep your emotions out of this story, or should you?

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Howie, I got to tell you, it was tough. I mean, I couldn't keep my emotions out of it.

This is my hometown. As I was flying in, I'm looking at the wildfires across the city and I'm thinking to myself, wow, that's where I used to deliver the papers. Oh, my gosh, that's where I went to Girl Scout camp.

And of course, I was really concerned about my parents. Once I knew they were OK -- I found out my dad was volunteering at Qualcomm and our pastors were there from our church. And I was seeing friends of mine that had been evacuated.

So I think in a way it brought me into the story in a different way. It was personal. I think it was OK in this situation to be personal about it as well.

I mean, battalion chiefs, firefighters, members of the military, I grew up with these folks. So it was great to be able to get an inside look and a personal look and a more emotional look.

KURTZ: Right.

PHILLIPS: I think that viewers were able to be -- were drawn into the story a little bit more.

KURTZ: And that certainly came across in your reporting.

Let's take a look at some of the interviews with people who had the terrible tragedy of losing their homes. Let's watch.


GEORGE LEWIS, NBC NEWS (voice over): In Rancho Bernardo, some returning homeowners now sifting through rubble tried to put on a brave face.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Going to rebuild. Bigger and better.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I know we're safe here, but just don't know the news reports about our homes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You worried about your home?


SMITH: What was it like to go back to the house and to see it in ruins?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was -- it was really sad.

SMITH: The stuff inside the house?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The stuff inside the house is all gone.

SMITH: All gone.


KURTZ: Harry Smith, we just saw you in action there.

Is it difficult to go through that TV ritual of interviewing somebody who's just suffered that kind of loss?

SMITH: You know, it's difficult, but it's so similar to so many other stories that we've done, you know, over the years. I'll tell you what though, I think it's very important for people like Claire and people to -- when the network or CNN or the cables send more people, it's more important to do the story. And I'll tell you why. Because it helps the viewers back home connect with the importance of the story.

I was walking down the street before I left for -- before I left for California, and somebody said, "Well, jeez, how big a deal are these wildfires out here? It's not on the front page of the newspaper." And unless you send the resources to actually cover the story, people at home don't really get the idea of how big a story it is or not.

KURTZ: That's right. "The New York Times" one day did not put the wildfires on the front page, and I thought that was a really bad judgment. And, of course, a lot more coverage in the days after as the magnitude became clear.

Kyra Phillips, same question to you. I mean, do you feel a little bit like a vulture when you're interviewing somebody who has just suffered a tragic loss? Because you know how it is on television, the more emotion they show, the better television it is.

PHILLIPS: Yes, it's a saying, Howie, it's comfortably uncomfortable. You hate doing it, but you have to do it because it's that emotion that draws people in to want to help, to want to give.

I also found so many stories of strength. People that had lost everything, and they were keeping a good sense of humor about it at some point and keeping a positive attitude. So that's what I tried to do, was show the stronger side of individuals who were suffering.

And also that emotion, like I said. I started getting e-mails and phone calls from my friends saying, wow, I saw you talking to so and so, or I saw this one segment, how can I give, how can I help out? And I told most of them, just come down and volunteer.

SHIPMAN: And I think also Harry and Kyra probably agree with me on this, but I was struck by, as Kyra said, the strength in a lot of the people. And for the disaster that it was, I really think the governor had a point.

He tried to make it to me a number of times, but this relief effort and the response effort went pretty well given what was going out there. The people at the Qualcomm Center that I saw were -- they weren't happy, but they were getting their needs met. There was an attitude there that frankly surprised me when I first arrived. I mean, not to mention the yoga and all of that stuff going on, which was bizarre.

SMITH: And the other notion is these people have been through this before in San Diego. They said, well, we just did this a couple of years ago. This is part and parcel of life out there. This is very much an expectation, like earthquakes and everything else.

KURTZ: Right. Talking to the rest of the country, but you do become inert to it to a certain degree if you live in that fire zone.

But Claire Shipman, you brought up your interview with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. You asked him about some criticism from local officials about aspects of the state's response.

Let's watch.


SHIPMAN: Well, you're saying everybody's working together, but you have there have been some complaints from officials, for example, in Orange County. The point he was making, you have to be ready to fly.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), CALIFORNIA: Trust me when I tell you, you are looking for a mistake and you won't find it, because it is all good news. As much as you maybe hate it, but it's good news.

SHIPMAN: I don't hate it. I'm just listening to Orange County.


SHIPMAN: It's all good news. It's all good news.

KURTZ: What were you thinking when Schwarzenegger grabbed your hand and accused of you hating good news?

SHIPMAN: Well, my first thought was, this is unusual. You know? And then I thought, when is he going to let go of my hands? He held my hands for the entire answer.

But it was just -- it was odd. It was an odd, unusual moment.

But a lot of people asked me afterwards, oh, were you scared? He was trying to keep you from asking questions. And he wasn't.

He was making a point in a typical Arnold Schwarzenegger way, which was, you know, I want to make the point everything is going well and you're gesturing in my face. And he grabbed my hand and...

KURTZ: Right. Would he have done that to a male correspondent?

SHIPMAN: I thought that often. I don't think so. But I do think, as George Stephanopoulos told me, he -- he and I decided he probably would have put his hands on the shoulders of a male correspondent and tried to make the same point. So...

KURTZ: Harry Smith, you've covered a lot of disasters in your career. And look, this is a business that kind of thrives on bad news -- big plane crash, big earthquake, big flood. We're there.

So does the adrenaline get going or do you become inert to it because you've had so much experience doing this?

SMITH: Well, you know, I want to go back to the point about what Claire was trying to say. And the fact is, is that "as well as this went" -- in quotation marks -- as few people lost their lives, the truth is -- and it's just starting to be reported now in this morning's "Los Angeles Times," and especially in Orange County -- there was a shortage of people on duty, there was a shortage of equipment.

When I was out on the fire lines Tuesday night at 1:00 in the morning, the radio in the fire truck, crackled all night long from exhausted crews saying, "We need more help here. We need more help here." And the dispatcher basically said, I don't have the help to send.

This in time will be the larger issue that California has to deal with here, is how are they going to deal with -- are they going to let controlled burns be burned? Are they going to have to respond to every single fire? Or are they going to have gigantic cataclysmic fires like the one they have right now every three or four years?

KURTZ: Right. And of course, while the response was pretty good, there were also bureaucratic obstacles that kept some planes, the helicopters out of the sky during those crucial opening days.

SMITH: Right.

KURTZ: Kyra Phillips, Claire mentioned earlier the scene at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego where 10,000 people took refuge from the fires. It was portrayed by the press as kind of a big party with Starbucks and massage therapists. Was it fair to contrast that with the situation at the Louisiana Superdome after Katrina?

PHILLIPS: Yes, I have a couple of thoughts there. It was a little overwhelming. It was -- I mean, there was yoga, meditation, acupuncture, even AA meetings, for goodness sake.

And I remember walking around thinking, wow, this is in some ways obnoxious. But at the same time, it really made a statement of how people were ready to give whatever and give anything that folks wanted or needed. And I made the comparison -- I was there in New Orleans and I was there during Katrina, and I saw the difference with organization.

The mayor in New Orleans had a chance to prepare better. That state had an opportunity to prepare better. It could have been much more organized. And I think this shows the difference when you have a lot of people that are ready to give, have the assets to give, and think about these types of disasters.

They've been through it before, they knew how to prepare. So -- and I saw the leadership.

KURTZ: Right.

PHILLIPS: I saw how it went down. And you're always going to be strapped. I hear what Harry and Claire are saying, but when a natural disaster hits, you're always going to be strapped because you really don't know what you're up against. And so you're pulling from everywhere.

SHIPMAN: You do have to...

SMITH: It couldn't be more apples and oranges. How many homes were destroyed in Katrina? Over 300,000 homes. How many homes have been destroyed in southern California? I mean, it's one -- the enormity of one versus the other one, they shouldn't even be compared in the same breath.

KURTZ: I think that's exactly right.

SMITH: People in southern California...

PHILLIPS: And I'm just talking about leadership. I'm talking about the issue of leadership. I saw what happened and how leadership...


SMITH: Listen. You remember what happened -- but you remember what happened in Louisiana and Mississippi. The fire departments and the police departments, people were hanging from trees. Those guys were hanging from trees in order to save their own lives. All that infrastructure of help was wiped off the face of the earth.

KURTZ: Let me -- let me move on. But you're right, 90,000 square miles affected by Katrina, 700 square miles in California.

The FEMA press conference -- FEMA did a pretty good job, and was getting good press. And

Claire Shipman, then FEMA decided to hold a news conference and to takes questions, not from reporters, but from FEMA officials pretending to be reporters.

What did you make of that?

SHIPMAN: I can't imagine how mortified Chertoff must be about that.

KURTZ: Michael Chertoff.

SHIPMAN: I mean, he -- yes, Michael Chertoff. He called it bone-headed. It certainly was bone-headed. And it's almost inexplicable.

We were talking about it. I mean, they were doing so well. Why the need to guild the lily? It was ridiculous in that way.

I mean, this is something where they knew all eyes are on FEMA. They're going to be judged again following Katrina. And it's -- I can't explain it for the life of me.

KURTZ: Harry, the last question to you. "Headline News" anchor Glenn Beck had this to say about people living in and around Malibu earlier in the week when this basically -- when the fire story was basically a Malibu story.

Let's listen.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP) GLENN BECK, "HEADLINE NEWS": I think there is a handful of people who hate America. Unfortunately for them, a lot of them are losing their homes in a forest fire today.


KURTZ: Is it appropriate to say that while people are losing their houses?

SMITH: I can't -- I don't even understand what that means.

KURTZ: It means that rich celebrities are, in his view, not sympathetic victims, I would say.

SMITH: Oh, I don't know. It's -- listen.

Here's the thing -- I want to go back to FEMA, because here's the deal. Accountability and transparency, that's tough. That's tough. And they've just decided they'd cut out the middle man, and there is no excuses for what they did.

KURTZ: All right. Got to thank everybody right now.

Kyra Phillips in San Diego, Harry Smith in New York, Claire Shipman here, appreciate your joining us this morning.

When we come back, covering a disaster in your own back yard. We'll talk to the San Diego reporter who went on the air while his own home was burning. A remarkable story.


KURTZ: No story is more excruciating for a journalist than to cover one in which his own community is being devastated. That was painfully apparent this week when San Diego reporter Larry Himmel was on the air reporting live as he watched his own house burn.


LARRY HIMMEL, KFMB REPORTER: On any given day I would say welcome to my home. This is what is left of my home.

Just outside the Forest Ranch (ph) area, fire crews have fought (INAUDIBLE) to save every house on this hill. At least took a shot at it, were nice enough to let us up here.

That was our garage, the living room over there. There was the porch. Right there are the bedrooms.

No pets left behind. Family out.


KURTZ: Joining us now from San Diego is KFMB reporter Larry Himmel.

Larry, here's what everybody was thinking -- what was going through your mind during that live shot?

HIMMEL: Well, Howard, it was a surreal, kind of out-of-body experience. I'll say that to begin with. But I had evacuated my family just a couple of hours ago, drove them out of harm's way, and then came back, hoping, at best, maybe that I would get some more things out of the house.

KURTZ: Right.

HIMMEL: And if not, to just find a story -- I mean, now I was a reporter on the job trying to find a story on the western edge of the fire that would be personal, that would be one of those stories that would translate, that would give people an idea of what they were up against.

Now, I had press credentials, Howard, so -- and I was there a little bit before all of the network crews down there. So I had an opportunity to get up close and personal.

And as I was driving back to my house, I saw the fire truck coming down the road, and they shook their head. And they said we're sorry, there's nothing we can do for your house, and I could see the flames starting to engulf it.

KURTZ: Right.

HIMMEL: So I said, "Will you please take me back up there?"

So my photographer and I and the fire trucks -- so when you see me there doing a live shot, about 20 feet behind me are a couple of firemen with hoses just in case that fire started flaming back, because the winds are just swirling around.

KURTZ: It was still a dangerous situation. But, you know, didn't part of you just want to take your microphone off and deal with your emotions privately? I mean, this was your house.

HIMMEL: Yes, it did. Tears are welling up in my eyes, not only because of the smoke and the ash -- and as a matter of fact, my wife had called me moments before and said, "How's our house? How's our house?" And when I got close enough to realize that it was going to be a goner, I said, "Honey, just turn on TV."

KURTZ: Oh, boy.

What kind of reactions have you gotten from people since that awful moment that we've all seen on the air a couple times now?

HIMMEL: Well, it's amazing, because until we started telling everybody's story as they started returning on Wednesday and Thursday -- and I don't mean this in any kind of ego way -- I became the face of the fire. My story was played out a little bit above the radar.

So people all over have -- I mean e-mails, and, of course, with the stuff that goes on YouTube and all of that, all around the world people have expressed their sorrow. And I appreciate it so much. So -- and everybody wants to do something for the victims. Howard, I'll tell you a really funny story.

I'll mention, we were in Target yesterday, the Target store buying, you know, sheets and buying towels and that. And there were all kinds of people in the store buying gift cards to give to other people who had suffered, because this is not seven separations removed.

Everybody knows somebody up close and personal that lost a home. It's that large a devastation. So we were there buying gift cards and people were walking up and handing us gift cards. It was kind of a surreal experience.

KURTZ: Wow. Yes, well, it's amazing that you've gotten reactions from around the world.

HIMMEL: Absolutely.

KURTZ: Now, you talk about, you know, this is not some abstract story. How about people in your newsroom? How were they able to concentrate and stay on the air constantly when either their own homes were threatened or their friends and colleagues were losing their homes?

HIMMEL: Well, I'll tell you, I covered the Cedar fires, which are the big fires everybody talks about that happened four years ago. And I actually covered a story of firemen who were putting out a fire and seeing in the hills their own home burning, and did not even save their own. They couldn't get to it. It was just a little bit more intense an area.

You know, they're pros. They're out there doing their job. I mean, when the firemen came down the hill after saying we have no chance of stopping your place, there were tears in their eyes, too. And the firemen were so frustrated.

I mean, they're used to going 18, 20 hours in this kind of adrenaline situation fighting fires, but they could make so little impact because the fires were so widespread. I mean, my entire hill was burning down. There were three or four houses either side of my burning down, and there's one fire truck out there. They had no chance.

KURTZ: That's an excellent point. While you certainly became the face of the fire, firefighters themselves were working so courageously and such long hours, some of them also losing their homes.

Larry Himmel, we really appreciate your stopping by this morning.

HIMMEL: Thank you so much.

KURTZ: And best of luck to you in rebuilding things.

HIMMEL: Howard, I appreciate it. KURTZ: Still to come, why saving Private Beauchamp may now be mission impossible for "The New Republic".

Plus, a crush for Rush. The conservative talker gushes over a money honey.

And a World Series tale. Rudy Giuliani strikes out at home.

Our "Media Minute" just ahead.


KURTZ: Time now for the latest in the news business in our "Media Minute".

"The New Republic" suffered a setback this week in defending private Scott Thomas Beauchamp, whose accounts of military cruelty in Iraq have been labeled fabrications by the Army.


KURTZ (voice over): In an interview with the editors last month, a transcript was leaked to "The Drudge Report". Beauchamp refused to defend his account in any way.

Editor Franklin Foer told Beauchamp that, "If you're not able to talk about this and able to stand by your story, I'm not sure we'll be able to stand by it. You wouldn't have much credibility left in the public eye."


KURTZ: Foer even urged Beauchamp to cancel a scheduled interview with me and with "Newsweek" so he could keep looking into the controversy. Foer said this week that Beauchamp has not retracted the story and was under duress with Army officials listening in to their interview.


KURTZ (voice over): CNBC's Erin Burnett got a bit of attention and criticism when Rush Limbaugh praised a report she had done on the economy. Rush gushed some more about his favorite money honey when he called in to Joe Scarborough's show, prompting the host to cut short an interview with Burnett.

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I love listening to myself, but it's great to know that you're listening to me, too. Nobody can big-foot you, Erin.

ERIN BURNETT, CNBC: Well, I got big-footed out. That's what happened Rush.

LIMBAUGH: The truth is that anybody who follows you, Erin, can't match what you've done. So that's the way you'd look at it.

BURNETT: Oh, thank you, Rush. You made my day. I'm done now.


KURTZ: Erin Burnett, now a Limbaugh-approved anchor.

Rudy Giuliani rarely shuts up about what a big Yankee fan is he. So when the former mayor let it be known in New Hampshire that he would root for the regional favorite, the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, the New York tabloids went nuts. "The New York Post" called him a "Red Coat," while "The Daily News" declared him a "Traitor!"

And I bet this blatant flip-flop didn't win Rudy a single vote in New Hampshire.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, are the media overplaying the importance of the presidential candidate's wives? They sound off on the subject.

And, from global warming to the war in Iraq, are the pundits playing the blame game over the California fires?


KURTZ: I have a very old-fashioned view of news conferences. That is, they should involve reporters! But the folks at FEMA had a very different idea this week. What they did was -- well, not to put too fine a point on it, what they did was a fraud.

Joining us now to talk about this bogus press event and the finger-pointing surrounding the California wildfires, in Los Angeles, Bob Harris, who blogs at And in Detroit, E.M. Zanotti, whose blog is called American Princess.

All right. Let's roll some tape from this FEMA press conference with an Oscar-winning performance by agency officials playing the role of reporters.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you address a little bit what it means to have the president issue an emergency declaration as opposed to a major disaster declaration?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you happy with FEMA's response so far?



KURTZ: Tough questions.

Bob Harris, what does this say to you that the Federal Emergency Management Agency thought it was fine for its employees to impersonate reporters? BOB HARRIS, HUFFINGTONPOST.COM: Well, unfortunately, I think it is part and parcel of the sort of information control that we've seen from this particular government. And I wish it wasn't happening.

Another fine example this week was when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading health agency in this country, gave testimony before the Senate concerning the long-term human health implications of global warming, and more than half of it was simply excised. So what happens with FEMA is also happening in the rest of the government.

And by the way, I have that statement right here. And it includes a specific statement saying that forest fires are going to be exacerbated by global warming in the future. And that was edited out.

KURTZ: Well, let's come back to that. It was indeed edited out.

And E.M. Zanotti, the FEMA press conference, idiotic?

E.M. ZANOTTI, BLOGS FOR "NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE": Yes, that was kind of trashy fabulous. I mean, here they have people just asking each other questions and they're using their real names.

So it's not like we couldn't go back and find out that Cindy Taylor (ph) was an employee of FEMA. In fact, on the Brown e-mails back from the Katrina incident. I mean...

KURTZ: In other words, how were they going to get away with this? In fact, FEMA, the boss of FEMA, the guy who oversees it, homeland security chief Michael Chertoff, had this to say about that event.


MICHAEL CHERTOFF, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: I think it was one of the dumbest and most inappropriate things I've seen since I've been in government.


KURTZ: I want to associate myself with Secretary Chertoff's remarks. This maybe was the Bush administration's secret fantasy, banish pesky reporters and ask the questions yourself.

All right. Let me -- go ahead.

ZANOTTI: No, this is not a secret fantasy of the Bush administration. This was an isolated incident.

HARRIS: Jeff Gannon.

ZANOTTI: Oh, Jeff Gannon was one blogger in the White House press corps.

HARRIS: Right. A blogger down in the White House press corps without credentials. ZANOTTI: This was a press conference hosted by FEMA, entirely done by FEMA. I believe the White House press secretary actually said they had no idea that this was going on.

HARRIS: Protect the president at all costs. Right. I know.

ZANOTTI: This is -- you know, no, that's -- that's ridiculous. You know, when you have a situation like -- I mean -- OK.

HARRIS: There's more important things to talk about.

ZANOTTI: In California, this was mainly contained. The reason it was mainly contained was because FEMA wasn't involved. They were there trying to take credit for it.

KURTZ: OK. Let me move on because this sounds like it could go on for a while.

Now, look, it happens after every major hurricane, flood, earthquake and wildfire in this country. Journalists cover the tragedy, but soon the story takes a sharp turn. There's got to be someone to blame, right?


KURTZ: Let me roll some tape. Let me roll some tape.


JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: Hundreds of firefighters battle those raging wildfires in southern California right now. Homes burned, lives destroyed. People are wondering this morning, is global warming to blame?

ANNE THOMPSON, NBC NEWS: One of the predicted impacts from climate change could be more wildfires.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, FOX NEWS: What we heard from Senator Harry Reid, who blamed the fires on global warming, is that the Democrats have a boundless capacity to seize whatever inanity is in the air and to make it their own.


KURTZ: Bob Harris, global warming clearly a serious world problem, but do we really know if it's played any kind of role in these California wildfires?

HARRIS: We certainly know that it will going forward in the future. Here's a report by the U.S. Forest service saying that specifically. Here's a statement by 200 scientists and land management experts signed in San Diego last year. Climate change is a huge issue in forest fires going forward. Here's the testimony again that was supposed to be given by the CDC, the leading public health organization, that was suppressed this week. If we don't take the hard science of this seriously, and in a nonpartisan fashion, I beg, honest to God, we're literally playing with fire. We have got 24 million Americans -- one in 13 Americans now lives in this tinderbox in southern California. It is getting worse every year.

I live here, I see my neighbors having to dealing with this. And it's not the sort of thing -- we don't need partisan finger-pointing right now. What we need is talking about real hard science.

KURTZ: E.M. Zanotti, what do you think of journalists raising this and commentators raising this while the fires were still raging?

ZANOTTI: Well, I mean, for beginners, global warming caused arsonists to go out and set fires? Because that's basically what happened.

HARRIS: No, arsonists...

KURTZ: All right. Let her finish.

HARRIS: Yes. Yes, you're right.

ZANOTTI: I mean, when you start pointing at global warming, you are ignoring the idea that people are living literally in a fire zone. They have fire seasons here. Four years ago they had a catastrophic fire. I mean, if you want to talk about environmental concerns, you need to talk about people moving towards these fire areas.

What about clearing the underbrush? Environmentalists have stood in the way of clearing the underbrush.

HARRIS: Let me destroy that point very quickly here. The fires have occurred largely in chaparral areas. That's low scrub.

Conventional fuel reduction techniques that you use in, like, a pine forest like you would have in much of the Rocky Mountain West simply don't apply to the chaparral. So, trying to bring up environmentalists caused this actually portrays a very pure ignorance of the southern California ecosystem.

ZANOTTI: Someone else on The Huffington Post actually wrote about this and said that the chaparral was causing this...


HARRIS: That's exactly right, but you need to understand what I said. Fuel reduction techniques you would use in other's ecosystems, which are sometimes opposed by environmentalists, simply don't apply to this situation. You just simply don't know what you're talking about.

ZANOTTI: But it doesn't change the fact that these people are living close to the line. I mean, I'm sure...

HARRIS: Yes, that's true. ZANOTTI: ... it's a beautiful place to live.

HARRIS: That's true.

ZANOTTI: ... but urban developers and planners have lived -- have moved them closer to this.

HARRIS: That's true.

KURTZ: All right. Let me jump in here, because it is also true that there are wide swaths of California that are affected by this. So it's hard to just say everybody should move out.

But E.M. Zanotti, what about commentators also invoking the Iraq war in saying that some national guardsmen and equipment of the National Guard was not available and that hurt California's response to these fires?

ZANOTTI: Didn't the National Guard have still people in California? This wasn't a situation where they have massive numbers of national guards in Iraq. In fact, they're one of the states that doesn't have massive numbers of national guards. Plus...

HARRIS: That's -- actually, the head of the National Guard in California complained last May that we don't have enough national guardsmen here. The governor himself, Schwarzenegger, complained last May that once equipment goes to Iraq it doesn't come back. Again, you're just wrong again on the facts.

ZANOTTI: Is equipment to fight fires going to Iraq? Are firefighters going to Iraq? I mean, you need to look at the basic...

HARRIS: Personnel are going, heavy machinery is going. And by the way...

ZANOTTI: You need to look at the basic demographics of what's going to Iraq or the basic demographics of whether it's even going to make a difference if these...


KURTZ: Go ahead, Bob Harris.

HARRIS: I've got to -- OK. I'm sorry.

I've got to make a point about the media coverage of this, too. Because this is a media program. And this sort of finger-pointing and yammering where we're just left, right, I wish to god this wasn't happening.

I told your producer that this is not a format that I'm comfortable with. I don't think it's appropriate. People's houses are still on fire.

KURTZ: But that was the question -- that was the question that I asked you. And look, we put you on and let you espouse your point of view...

HARRIS: I know.

KURTZ: ... which is, is -- you know, global warming may be a factor. National Guard shortages may be a factor. But is it appropriate to be having this debate on the air in recent days while people's houses were still burning to the ground?

HARRIS: You know what? Democratic houses and Republican houses burn. Democrats and Republicans are fighting on the front lines. Democrats and Republicans are giving aid, comfort and shelter and food in Qualcomm, or were in other areas around San Diego.

KURTZ: Right.

HARRIS: We are Americans. We are one country. And we don't -- you know, you don't ask somebody when you're trying to give them food if they're a Democrat or a Republican.

KURTZ: I agree.

ZANOTTI: And that's absolutely true, yes.

HARRIS: These sorts of debates divide us.

KURTZ: The tyranny of television requires me to thank you both.

E.M. Zanotti, Bob Harris, appreciate this lively discussion this morning.

ZANOTTI: Thank you.

KURTZ: After the break, a group of would-be first ladies says the press is greatly exaggerating their influence. The candidates' wives in the spotlight.


KURTZ: Nothing, it seems, is off limits in a presidential campaign. But the media spotlight on spouses seems brighter, harsher, more intense than ever before.

Five of the candidates' wives got together at a forum this week hosted by Maria Shriver, Governor Schwarzenegger's wife -- Elizabeth Edwards, Michelle Obama, Cindy McCain, Ann Romney and Jeri Thompson. Their message, the media portray us as more important political players than we actually are.


ELIZABETH EDWARDS, WIFE OF JOHN EDWARDS: Any time you say anything, as Ann was saying, it gets exploded into a bigger story. There's lots of times where I've said something, perhaps it -- you know, if it ended up on the front page of "Drudge," I didn't say it right. You know?


ANN ROMNEY, WIFE OF MITT ROMNEY: There is an objective every single day. Please. Don't make me -- I don't want to make the front page today.

MICHELLE OBAMA, WIFE OF BARACK OBAMA: Yes. I know, I look at the clips, and I'm like, great, I'm not in there.

JERI THOMPSON, WIFE OF FRED THOMPSON: He's been in politics before, and I haven't like this, with this amount of exposure. I mean, I've likened it to walking down the street with no clothes on.


KURTZ: Joining us now, Lois Romano, national political reporter for "The Washington Post". And Linda Douglass, contributing editor for -- excuse me, contributing editor for "National Journal" and senior fellow at the Brademas Center at New York University.

Linda Douglas, all these smart and influential women saying, you know, we just change the diapers and try to make our husbands happy.

What did you make of that?

LINDA DOUGLASS, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, "NATIONAL JOURNAL": I mean, it is very retro. I mean, it was amazing to see all of these high- powered professional women trying to minimize who they are in the world, who they are in life by saying, I'm just a mother. Jeri Thompson saying, I just change diapers, when we all know that she is a very important adviser, has a lot of power in that campaign.

On the other hand, Bill Clinton tries to minimize his role, you would say, as well. He just talks about how he's tagging along, you k now, carrying her coat. So it does seem to be the role of the spouse.

KURTZ: That's a lot tougher task for the former president.

Are these women, Lois Romano, afraid that the media will paint them as power hungry shrews if they admit the obvious, that they have clout in this campaign?

LOIS ROMANO, "WASHINGTON POST": Oh, absolutely. I think their performance at that show, that conference, is illustrative of how conflicted they had are about it.

I mean, they looked at Hillary Clinton and they thought -- they saw her get skewered in '92, and they're thinking, well, maybe there is a better way to do it. I should just pretend I'm not that influential, but maybe not pretend.

And the idea is they don't want to make negative news, they don't want to draw away from the candidate. Which is why I think Jeri Thompson's gone mute. I mean...

KURTZ: She left you a voicemail when you called. ROMANO: She did. She did. And I think she got -- she took a lot of precious time away from him when he was trying to announce because all the coverage was on her. And he had to go on and defend her. And so we have not heard anything about her except to talk about changing diapers since that time.

KURTZ: And despite Jeri Thompson's protests about her influence or lack thereof in Fred Thompson's campaign, I mean, she's -- it's widely reported that she has clashed with some of his senior advisers, some of whom left the campaign. So, what do you make?

DOUGLASS: Well, I've talked to some of these senior advisers. Many, many people got fired from that campaign, left that campaign.

Universally, I was told, that she had enormous influence. She micromanaged the schedule. She wanted to see who was at their desk at what time. So that was all -- that was certainly the case early on in the campaign.

But what you really saw I thought with Jeri Thompson was an appeal to other women to feel sympathy for her, to see her as vulnerable. You know, to see her as insecure, as inexperienced. And that is the retro message that I'm kind of wondering why women think they have to present that message to other women.

KURTZ: She's a former Republican National Committee staffer, so she's hardly unfamiliar with the game of politics.

Elizabeth Edwards, it sometimes seems, gets more attention than her husband. Obviously she's battling cancer, but also she does things like calling MSNBC to take on Ann Coulter. She's come out in favor of gay marriage, which John Edwards has not.

So I was surprised to hear her talk about, well, not wanting to end up on "The Drudge Report" and so forth.

ROMANO: Right. Her position is that she's always been saying the same things but now the media is picking it up more. And I don't buy that.

I mean, she's much more active in this go-round. And like you say, she's been able to kind of do some of the things that he hasn't been able to do, like show up at the gay pride parade in San Francisco and make a big speech about how she was for gay marriage and give him some cover on that issue.

DOUGLASS: Well, and you said an important thing earlier, which is they are pretending.

ROMANO: Right.

DOUGLASS: The word "pretend" is very important. They are pretending to not have a lot of influence.

Look at how important the experience of a first lady can be. Hillary Clinton is running for president on that experience. She's running, in part, on the experience that she had in the White House as the wife of the president. Saying that that qualifies her in a way to be president.

So it's very important to know what these women think, what roles they're playing. And they're in many ways concealing that.

KURTZ: And therefore, it is important for reporters to talk to them, to look at their records, what they bring. In other words, they're not -- this is not -- we aren't talking here about Bess Truman or Mamie Eisenhower. The role has changed.

ROMANO: Oh, absolutely. I mean, voters don't consider it monumentally important who these people are, but they want to know who they are.

They want to meet them. And they are expecting today's woman. They're not expecting Mamie Eisenhower.

They're expecting somebody that, yes, raises a family, but does it all. And I don't know -- I really don't understand why some of these women don't just say, yes, I'm influential, I'm going to sit in cabinet meetings. I mean, they see how successful, as you say, Hillary Clinton was.

KURTZ: Well, there was one woman whose husband said she would sit in cabinet meetings.

ROMANO: Right.

KURTZ: And that was Judith Giuliani. She was not at this conference in California this week. That was during an interview with Barbara Walters. And since then, Judith Giuliani has pretty much stayed out of sight.

What do you make of that?

DOUGLASS: Well, it's going to be very interesting to see how she reenters the public spotlight.

There was a devastating piece that we all know about in "Vanity Fair," the magazine, about how she was a power grabber and how she ran everything and how she spent a lot of money on clothes and jewelry. And it was just completely unflattering. And now she's completely receded to the background.

KURTZ: And, of course, look, Judith Giuliani has the obvious disadvantage of she came to public attention as the mistress of the mayor who was then divorcing his second wife. So I can understand the sensitivity, but at the same time not talking to the media much at all, does that help your case?

DOUGLASS: Well, no, because now she's even more of a mystery. She was last defined by the "Vanity Fair" piece which showed her as a power hungry, you know, home wrecker who likes a lot of jewelry. And she's going to have to redefine herself in some way. Obviously, Rudy Giuliani really loves her. He took her phone call in the middle of a bit important speech that he was making. So there's a real partnership. You know that she has influence there, and it is incumbent upon reporters to find out what that influence is.

KURTZ: Yes. The couple did give an interview to FOX News.

Michelle Obama -- you know, we say in the media we want real people, we don't want automatons. And so she comes out with some interesting comments.

She says her husband is snoring and stinky in the morning and the daughters don't want to crawl into bed with him. And then we say, boy, she's not being very supportive.

So sometimes it feels like they can't win.

ROMANO: Well, in that case, I think it was a little too earthy. I mean...

KURTZ: Too much information?

ROMANO: She can talk about herself, you know, being kind of stinky in the morning, but I think we still want to hold up our candidates on a little bit of a pedestal. It was a little too information.

KURTZ: You talked to Michelle Obama, right?

DOUGLASS: Yes. I just interviewed her this week. And she is very candid. It's actually an appealing quality that she has in that way.

But the spouse's role -- and Bill Clinton again is playing this role as well -- is to humanize the candidate, tell you what -- this is a lovable person, an endearing person, we're normal people, we have dinner together, we laugh, we full around. You know he leaves, as Michelle Obama says, his socks lying around. And Bill Clinton says she's got a great sense of humor, you have no idea how much fun she is.

That's the role of the spouse.

KURTZ: Well, Michelle Obama is certainly succeeding in that.

Interestingly, Barack Obama telling "The New York Times" this morning -- asked when he's so far behind Hillary Clinton and saying he's got to be more aggressive against her -- "The national press for the last few months has written glowingly about her and not so much about me."

This guy got fabulous coverage when he got into the race, but when you're 30 points behind for a while, that can take a little wind out of your sails.

Got to go. Linda Douglass, Lois Romano, thanks very much for joining us.

Still to come, the pundits have a crush on a long shot White House wannabe. A look at the Huckabee. That's next.


KURTZ: Every four years, without fail, journalists develop a crush. They pick some long shot presidential candidate, a likable fellow who's languishing in the polls and doesn't have much money. And the lucky guy gets to ride a media wave.


KURTZ (voice over): In 1984, Gary Hart was the object of their affection. Four years later, it was Bruce Babbitt. The 1992 version was Paul Tsongas. In 200, underdog John McCain regaled reporters for hours on end on his Straight Talk Express.

The media darling of the moment is Mike Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor is down to earth, plays the guitar, has lost more than 100 pounds and is pretty funny.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, for ten and a half years I've governed in a state where 86 percent of the elected officials are Democrat. I'm a Republican. I mean, if I had thought and acted like that, we couldn't have, you know, passed gas in the House chamber.

KURTZ: But Huckabee is way back in the Republican pack. He garnered some favorable headlines for finishing second in the meaningless Iowa Straw Poll last summer, and now the pundits are really lending a hand.

"Newsweek" columnist Jonathan Alter: " He may be the only Republican candidate with a decent chance to beat the Democrats next November. Huckabee? Yes, Huckabee."

"New York Times" columnist David Brooks writes that despite his "... Mayberry name and a Jim Nabors face" -- that's the actor who played "Golly Gomer Pyle" -- "Huckabee is as good a campaigner as anybody running for president this year. And before too long it becomes easy to come up with reasons why he might have a realistic shot at winning the Republican nomination."

The Politico asks, "Could Huckabee be Mr. Right?" He's even picked up the endorsement of actor Chuck Norris.

Not everyone is on the bandwagon. "For all his eloquence," says "National Review" editor Rich Lowry, "what Huckabee lacks fundamentally is a message."

But he's got the messengers. At least some of them. Is that enough to repeat the feat of another former governor who grew up in a place called Hope?


KURTZ: Well, don't hold your breath. Huckabee has some liabilities -- zero foreign policy experience, for example -- that tends to get overlooked in this honeymoon phase. Oh, and those other media favorites, Hart, Tsongas, McCain and the rest, they got plenty of good press and they all lost.

As if to underscore the point, Mike Huckabee coming up as a guest next on "LATE EDITION".

Well, that's it for us.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

Join us again next Sunday morning, 10:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.